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01.03.2006 General News

Heavy fines stifling media and democratic growth

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Agona Swedru (C/R), Feb. 28, GNA - Professor Kofi Quarshigah, a Lecturer at the Faculty of Law of the University of Ghana, has said that heavy fines imposed on media houses by the law courts had the potential of stunting the growth of a vibrant mass media and inadvertently stifling democratic growth.

He said journalists needed to strictly uphold the ethics of their profession and respect the rights of others, whiles the judiciary also upheld the Directive Principle of State Policy, which required them to pursue policies that would enhance growth of democratic principles and institutions like the media.

This, he said, was the key to preventing the usually clash between the media and the judiciary and its resultant imposition of heavy fines. Prof. Quarshigah made the call at a two-day workshop on "Journalists and the Law", organized by the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) and sponsored by the British High Commission to educate journalists on their legal rights and responsibilities as well as the need to uphold professional ethics.

The seminar, attended by 30 reporters and editors of privates and state-owned media houses discussed topics which included Legal Challenges of Post-Criminal Libel Law Regime, Dangers and Effects of Civil Libel Suits, The Law of Defamation, Freedom of Information Bill and Ethical Challenges of Post-Criminal Libel Law Regime. Speaking on the topic; Press Law and Rights of Journalists, Prof. Quarshigah said the loyalty of journalists was to the truth and their responsibility was to national interest, adding that if journalists worked with those principles in mind they were likely to avoid clashes with the courts and ultimately avoid heavy fines.

He reminded journalists that, "the operations of the media is a public trust regardless of its ownership" as contained in the national media policy.

"The situation where journalists portray themselves as a special class of people with the power of the pen to hold people to ransom makes the judiciary also see themselves as a special class of people with the power to mulch journalists who fall foul of the law with heavy fines and protect the rights of society," he said.

Prof. Quarshigah reminded journalists that they had the right and responsibility to expose evil but in doing so, there was need to be circumspect, not to violate the rights of people without a just cause. He said in the event where a journalist or a media house infringes on the rights of a citizen, it was in the interest of the journalist to submit to the authority of the GJA Ethics and Disciplinary Council (EDC) or the National Media Commission (NMC) for settlement rather than allowing themselves to the dragged to the courts.

"The courts are not friendly to arrogant and malicious journalists," he said.

Prof. Quarshigah noted with regret how some senior journalists had in the past ignored the invitation of the NMC and the EDC of the GJA for the settlement of issues concerning news articles they published about people.

He said there was need to give the NMC some teeth to be able to deal with journalists and media houses with more authority, so that before the courts came in, it would have been fully proven that the journalist or media house in question was arrogant and non-co-operative.

"People who have been defamed or libeled are usually not interested in money but in getting their names cleared as journalists it is important to use the NMC and GJA for the purpose instead of the courts where you are likely to be slummed with heavy fines," he advised.

Ms Adjoa Yeboah Afari, GJA President reminded journalists that they were not above the law, saying, "we need not be reminded that we do not have rights and freedoms unlimited as journalists." She also pointed out that the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law, did not open the flood gates for journalists to infringe on peoples rights freely, saying that civil libel laws still existed to protect people's rights.

"Some of our colleagues have simply become arrogant and aligned themselves with politicians so they think they can get away with any irresponsible and unethical conduct," she said. "We need to do some soul searching and also become conversant with the law in order to conduct ourselves responsibly."

Ms Yeboa-Afari said the law did not exist to put fear in journalists but to ensure that journalists behaved responsibly and allow fair play to guide their conduct.

She stressed the need for journalists to submit to the NMC and the EDC of the GJA, saying that these two bodies provided a more flexible and friendly atmosphere than the courts for the settlement of disputes. "The GJA has amended its constitution to ensure membership for corporate media houses instead of just individual journalists, to allow for mediation of issues concerning the corporate body to also be dealt with by the GJA," he said.

Mr. Bright Blewu, GJA General Secretary noted that one major challenge facing the GJA was the inability of media houses to employ professionally trained journalists from accredited training institutions.

He said most of the blunders in the media were committed by persons who worked for media houses but were not members of the GJA and yet people point accusing fingers at the GJA for any blunder committed by a media house or a supposed journalist. Mr. Blewu urged media houses to ensure that their employees were from the three listed accredited journalism schools, comprising Ghana Institute of Journalism, African Institute of Communication and Journalism and the School of Communication Studies. 28-Feb-06